A decade ago, Timothy Ray Brown was sat in a doctor’s office, listening to doctors deliver hope about a cure – not for the HIV he had been living with for 11 years but for acute myeloid leukaemia he had developed alongside it.
Having controlled the HIV using antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) he had all but given up hope of ever finding a cure in his lifetime for the deadly disease plaguing his body. But for the leukaemia, there was hope – doctors took the decision to use radiation and chemotherapy to wipe out his immune system to treat the leukaemia, then rebuild it with donated stem cells. A process becoming more popular in the medical world.
When the chemotherapy didn’t work – doctors looked at other options – one being a stem cell transplant.
HIV attacks and breaks down the immune system by merging with and then invading a certain type of immune system cell, called a T cell. Most strains of HIV use a T-cell protein, called CCR5 (or C-C chemokine receptor type 5) as a co-receptor to invade the host cell. Scientists have discovered that some individuals carry a mutation in their CCR5 gene, called a CCR5-delta32 mutation that protects them from getting infected with the strains of HIV. The theory was that by putting these cells into Brown’s body in place of his own, he would then be immune to the HIV he carried.
His doctors’ theory was that he could cure both diseases at once by finding a donor who carried a rare gene mutation that confers natural resistance to HIV. The hope was that this transplanted immune system would wipe out any hidden pockets of the virus in Brown. Doctors gave it very little chance for success. Astoundingly, however, it worked.
Brown is now the only person ever to have been recorded to have beaten HIV and was speaking at the University of Cape Town in September, supporting cure research on the 10th anniversary of his miraculous recovery.
“I don’t want to be the only person cured of HIV, it’s a very lonely place,” said Timothy who is more than one in a million – he is one in 70 million. “It’s an incredible feeling – like a miracle,” he said. “I had two lethal diseases and was able to get rid of both.”
Dubbed as the ‘Berlin Patient’ after receiving treatment there, researchers have since been interested in seeing if his cure could be repeated in other patients with HIV and cancer who need a stem cell transplant.
“Recovery has taken too long, but I feel great and I am grateful for everything,” Brown said. “I still hang on to the hope that everyone living with HIV will be cured in my lifetime.”
While it is currently too risky to try on other patients, it shows that a cure is possible for HIV and research continues.